Cold War Kids
Robbers and Cowards
bout a year ago, I stumbled into the Silverlake Lounge to see a friend’s band. The small bar was a mess of dim lights and disinterested eyes politely ignoring the opening act, one of four that would play for free into the early hours of that cold November morning. The band playing at that moment seemed oblivious to the fact that there were only about 25 people in the room. Onstage, they whip-sawed through a set of songs that carried an urgency more fitting to a revival than another unpaid Monday night gig. And while the set might have stopped short of revelation, it was impressive enough to warrant making it my business to find out who the band was and why I hadn’t heard of them before.
So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when shortly thereafter, the Cold War Kids began appearing on practically every prominent music website. But, in a way, it was. After all, it’s not that often when some anonymous band you see in some random bar ends up being touted as the next big thing in pages as big as Rolling Stone, the NME, and the Los Angeles Times within six months. But these are the vagaries of this weird Internet age, where the hype grows seemingly more deafening by the moment and bands can become famous overnight, without formalities such as touring or the seemingly obsolete notion of “paying dues.”
It’s been rumored that merely by saying “I don’t believe in Cold War Kids,” another blogger dies. The Cold War Kids’ debut album, Robbers and Cowards seems like the latest referendum on the blogosphere; another test to see whether or not the Internet band du jour can seemingly live up to the ear-splitting levels of hype accompanying its arrival. If that’s the case, Robbers and Cowards, both fails and succeeds.
Admittedly, that’s an ambiguous statement, but that’s how most first albums are. For every Funeral or Apologies to the Queen Mary that might seemingly rise out of the ether, lies the oft-forgotten truth that most great bands don’t drop masterpieces in their first-go-round. Not many people foresaw an A.M.-era Wilco making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It took six years for My Morning Jacket to get from The Tennessee Fire toZ. Judging from Telephono, no one would’ve predicted Britt Daniel would turn into the most consistently brilliant musician in rock.
In that vein, Cold War Kids’ debut album is a mixed bag: moments of brilliance interspersed with bouts of monotony. A scorching first half followed by a slower second side, it makes it to the finish line in fine position—but barely so. Comprised primarily of tracks from the band’s Up in Rags and With Our Wallets Full EPs, with two new songs thrown in, the album feels rushed, as the though the band’s new label, Warner-affiliated Downtown Records, may have been a bit too eager to cash in on their hot new prospect’s digital fame. Indeed, “Passing Your Hat” and “God, Make Up Your Mind” seem tacked on to fill a need for new material, rather than out of necessity, as both seem like lesser versions of other songs on the record.
But when the band is on, they’re on. The album starts off right with the boozy wobbly lament “We Used to Vacation,” segueing smoothly into the rollicking stomp of “Hang Me Up to Dry.” Lead singer and frontman Nathan Willet sings with bruised vocals reminiscent of Jeff Buckley by way of Jack White—a plaintive voice that’s the determining factor in whether or not someone will like this album. People will either buy his aged-beyond-his-years, blues-soaked howl or they won’t. I do.
But with the final haunted piano keys of “Hospital Beds,” the album starts to run out of steam, as none of the final four songs can match the heights reached earlier. The album isn’t without its other shortcomings. At times, the lyrics seem overly simplistic set against the greater themes that Willet seems to be trying to address. He’s a songwriter with ambition and while he might not yet paint the most vivid pictures, Willet and the rest of the band seemed blessed with significant potential. All in all, Robbers and Cowards, reminds me most of that first night I saw the band. The album stops short of revelation, but still comes across as the work of a band whose name you should know. It’s a good debut, maybe even a very good one. Whether or not this band will achieve greatness remains anybody’s guess.